While my family and I were in New York City in January, we visited Washington Square Park. It’s a hot-spot for creatives, often the gathering place for buskers, musicians, wild fashion, weddings and serious games of chess. On this particular day, we had the pleasure of meeting poet Marshall James Kavanaugh aka ‘@DreamPoetForHire‘. Marshall is a traveling poet who writes poetry for people via his trusty typewriter. All he asks is that the person gives him a theme to write about. On the day we met, our family had just finished a tour at NYU so education was on our minds. I asked Marshall to write us a poem about education/learning.
A few minutes later as I stood in the brisk wind admiring Marshall’s typing skills and getting excited about his poem, he had written this:
We were thrilled with his poem! Naturally, I got his contact information and promised that I’d write him a poem too! When I returned home, I sent him an email and he promptly responded telling me that he’d like me write a piece on the theme of ‘ars poetica’. Full transparency here, friends, I had to look up the meaning having heard the term but not being sure exactly what it meant!
Goodness, I forgot how great it felt to write ‘on-demand’ for someone. It’s such an invigorating feeling…a complete creative hit, if you will. And knowing that someone like Marshall exists – a true-and-true, modern-day ‘rucksack revolutionary, traveling poet, well it makes me feel so good about the world! About the arts! About the power of poetry!
I simply had to invite Marshall to be on my blog…indeed, he agreed to answer some questions so he can tell us about his life as a poet and all-around, super-cool creative human.
Marshall’s words are extremely inspiring, vulnerable, hopeful, spiritual and peace-full. You are forewarned.
What are some of the most difficult themes/topics to write about? Have you ever cried/gotten emotional whilst writing?
Of course. When I began setting up and doing public poetry, I intended to get my name out there, share a few poetic conversations, encourage others to be just as excited about poetry as I am, but the thing I didn’t realize at first is how such a simple setup can become an open channel for just about anything to come in.
Poetry is a tool that communities use to grieve and commiserate with one another. It’s how we memorialize those who have just entered this plane of existence as much as it is how we process those who have passed on into the void beyond us. It’s how we move on from heart break and get through a rough time of emotional turbulence. The poem and therefore The Poet can become the mode of catharsis to move through and beyond this tempest of emotions. It’s how we find the words to describe what we are experiencing in this thing called Human.
I think I first was forced to face this as my role as The Poet when I was living in Taos, NM, a very spiritual place with a community that embraces the tough steps of personal and communal shadow work. The town was reconciling an epidemic of teen suicide in the local high schools. We followed marches, prayer circles, ceremonies led by indigenous and non-indigenous community members to heal as a town and empower the youth to move through this dark time.
One day, I was approached at the farmers market where I set up each week by a mother who had lost her son and she wanted a typewritten poem that embodied his spirit while he lived and now that he had passed on. At first, I was obviously overwhelmed with the responsibility and perhaps writing the wrong thing or getting too personal. These are topics we typically as a society do not share with one another, especially not with complete strangers.
But it was through this experience I learned that a poem is more than just the words it is composed of. It is like a key wherein which two people can connect and relate separate worlds, ideas, and personal stories.
The tears fall maybe when a perfect line hits its mark, but in all circumstances there is this exchange of getting closer to what it means and feels like to be human. There is no wrong thing that you can write, because we are all finding our way in the dark and each one of us is the light.
What poetry do you read? Do you read contemporary poets? Do you have any favs?
I’m a big fan of Saul Williams. I like how his poems are visual as much as they are spoken. Obviously, as a fellow traveler and rucksack revolutionary, I grew up being very inspired by the Beats, specifically Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Bob Kaufman, Lenore Kandel, etc. I think I wouldn’t have realized poetry could also be a lifestyle without their example as a generation of creatives living what they wrote about. More recently I’ve been majorly influenced by the works of John Trudell. For me, his indigenous identity harbors a perspective that really breaks through the insanity of western imperialism and the society that holds us all hostage, as well as our Mother Earth, to offer clear and concise solutions to the global challenges we face. It’s a love center that uses the whole Earth as its ground to spring up from.
How do you feel about publishing? You’ve self-published some chapbooks, is that correct? Is it important for you to have your poetry live in this way: bound in a book? Why or why not?
I actually co-run a small press called A Freedom Books that is based in Philadelphia, PA. We’ve published various collections of poetry, short stories, essays, and even plays by a constantly growing collective of authors from around the country. Personally, I have had published several hand-bound chapbooks, a paperback collection of travel haikus, two paperback collections of short stories, a collection of essays, and over the years, dozens of one-off zines and other small releases. I also have about 7 other writing projects in various stages of completion, including 3 novels, a novella, another collection of haikus, and several collections of essays that link protest to earth worship. For the novels, I am in the process of working out a publisher for a much wider release, but with all the other projects I like to keep it local.
I like the idea of how a book retains a permanence beyond its creator so that someone you may not know will one day find it on a book shelf or out on the street in the gutter and pick it up to take home with them to read. I like that long after I am dead, I will have readers who will find something in my books that they can relate to and maybe even will help them process the struggles they experience in their own lives.
I think books take on their own lives and I love wondering where they end up in their journeys. Who they connect to. How they inspire. I think about the books I have read over time and how they have touched so many lives, stirring whole worlds in our minds to come to life. I can’t wait to see what readers find me a long way off from now and what they think of the worlds I have jotted down for their entertainment.
Can you list all of the places you’ve set up your typewriter to write poetry? Do any places stick out as super special? Why?
I’ve set up all over the country from New York to New Orleans to Santa Fe to LA and even Seattle. Anywhere where there is live music and an outdoor art market, I’ve probably spent some time typing poems. I mentioned I’m a beatnik, so I really like the idea of paying homage to the writers that crafted that movement by setting up near their sacred sites, maybe even getting lucky and attracting their ghosts to haunt me as I write my poetry. I’m like a devotee on a pilgrimage through the American Dream, but I’m not seeking the Beloved, I’m only trying to catch up with my old friends found in books who passed on before I even read them. Places like Washington Square Park in New York City or outside City Lights Books in San Francisco spark this kind of romance.
I can feel Jack peering over my shoulder, and hear Neal rattling off a mile-a-minute story about his latest adventure. The words get really frenzied and the typewriter takes on the cadence of a full jazz orchestra.
Sometimes I truly get lucky and someone who has actually met Jack in real life or spent some time studying under Ginsberg will come up off the street and see something in me where they know that I know that life is really all just a bunch of poetry and we have a conversation there on the spot like it’s time immemorial and I’ve crisscrossed from the 2020s into the 1960s, and usually I’ll have to shoo them away at some point because their meandering conversation is driving away business, though I don’t really want to see them leave because their stories are so dreamy.
Lately, out of thin air, I’ve been having this same experience in Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, which isn’t a historical beatnik hangout by any means. Actually it’s quite the opposite with luxury apartments and expensive restaurants surrounding it. But it’s as if the 12 years I’ve lived in the city and all the years I spent seeking beatniks elsewhere were all for naught, since now the beatniks come on down to the park and find me, and they got some of the greatest stories. Like for instance this one guy, Beat Brad aka George Bradley from New England who just celebrated his 84th birthday and got arrested with Bob Kaufman in San Fran one time in the 1950s when he worked at a coffee shop across the street from City Lights, and who hung out with Henry Miller, and ate peyote in New Mexico and all these other wild things. He just keeps showing up and talking and I just keep taking it in because, Boy oh boy! What a wild story! Who wouldn’t want to hear it?
How does this lifestyle affect the rest of your world? How often are you traveling and writing as the dream poet for hire? Do you have another job?
I’ve been a full time poet for 5 years now. But even before that all my income went into making art, travel, and performing poetry.
I don’t think the artistic life should be secondary. I think to be a poet, you actually have to be a poet. All the time. You can’t take breaks. I don’t think typing poetry on the street has changed my lifestyle all that much. It feels more like the actualization of me becoming me.
Before there was wasted time. I was selling my self for someone else’s profit half the time just to have enough time and money to chase the dream. Now I’m living the dream. I just finished up a Saturn returns, so perhaps in another 25 years I’ll be having my midlife crisis and wondering what the hell I did with my life, but for this moment I feel like I am actually leading the life I want to lead and the only issue I run into is that there is not enough time to do all the things I want, so I wish I had started earlier on all of it.
I’m always on the road, even if I’m at my home in Philly, and that’s a big part of it too. That’s part of the dream life. I got this duality of being a big home body, but also always being restless to get back out there and start traveling and so I’m usually traveling once a month at least out of the city, sometimes on bigger trips across the country or abroad, but I’ve never liked traveling like a tourist, so I really try to sit where I’m at and live like the locals do until at some point I feel like a local and I have all these local friends and now I have all these place all around the country if not the world where I want to go back because that’s where my community lives and I want to spend time with them before time runs out. It helps that I’m a performing artist. I usually go on book tours at least once or twice a year. Sometimes for only two weeks. Sometimes for three months. And yeah, part of it is to spread hype for a new book I wrote or work out a new performance.
But mostly I have all these friends all over the place and I’m really trying to see them and hang out and get inspired again and hoping to link up because really dreamy things happen when you get a bunch of dreamers in the room and they all start working on their dream labors together.
Plus I really wouldn’t be anything without these friends I’ve made. My literary peers. My artistic generation. And some of them even know each other and don’t have the same situation like I do to travel as often. And so I do my best, like a great Bard, and I travel between all the villages and connect all the stories and share the great news between these distant realms making it all feel a little bit closer to home.
How do you afford all the traveling? (If this is too personal a question, you don’t have to answer!) Can you talk about how ‘money’ fits into this lifestyle?
More than money, I think what limits a person’s ability to do the things they want to do is the idea of scarcity. For almost a decade I have been meditating on bringing abundance into my life. The fun thing with abundance is that it is more a matter of perspective than actually a solid, concrete thing that’s value can be measured at any one moment compared to another.
Obviously, to fill the gas tank you need to come up with $20 somehow because that is the currency of abundance that this society operates from, but so many other interactions with the world can be money free.
When a person comes to the point where they can be broke and still feel the ever-presence of abundance all around them, I think that is when you break out of the fear of scarcity and start to engage in bigger leaps.
Personally, it has taken baby steps to get to the comfort level that I am at with money or lack thereof, and though I’m not quite there yet to buy the dream house or retire on some property in the woods, I wouldn’t have gotten to the current level of self-sustainability without trusting that no matter what odds I face, I have the abilities to overcome them. I understand that I have certain privileges in being an able-bodied, white male who grew up in a lower middle class family, and these have given me a little bit of a starting point to experiment in this lifestyle choice, but I think a lot of what held me back in my younger twenties wasn’t a lack of money, but a lack of trust in myself that I could get through life without it.
When I write poetry on the street, there is often an exchange of money, and this comes from a different conversation that we as a modern creative collective are having where it’s important that an artist is always valued for their work. Part of that is a need for the artist to value themself as well by expressing this value, for lack of something better, in a common currency. In countries like Canada or the UK they have grants for artists to do their thing and find their stride, while offering a service that beautifies their surroundings. In neoliberal capitalist-dystopias like the United States, an artist must rely on a business model where they sell what they create. Honestly, I’m not yet fully comfortable when I am forced to use poetry money to buy something like groceries or pay for rent. But I look at this income as another baby step towards a greater model of sustainability, where the money earned writing poetry stays in the field of poetry and is laundered towards supporting other poetic projects. For now, I treat it like a grant, where a percentage is to subsidize my living expenses, another percentage is to be saved, another is to subsidize my travel expenses for book tours or personal vacations, and finally a last portion is to be used to work on poetry collaborations like publishing other writers or taking them on tour with me.
How do I afford this grant to live the life as a poet? I dance my butt off in the office on the street and do what I can to do what I love.
And when that’s not enough, I’ve been especially grateful to find a community all across the country that has supported me in my journey, so much so that when I get back home I’m able to return the favor and offer what I can of mine to support them in theirs.
Have you ever felt afraid being out offering people a poem?
When I first began typing poems in public, I was absolutely terrified. Scared someone would come run me off, or worse that someone would tell me my poetry was awful. I had performed on the stage as a spoken word artist for years, but this was a whole other type of stage fright. Unlike a poetry reading where I could feel safe and held, this was the open street and anything could happen. It took me years and an experience of not having any other choice to commit to the idea that I could do it full time. There’s that scarcity mind, always on the grind. Even when I finally committed, it had to be through a pseudo-confidence that I faced my fear and became the Dream Poet that I am today.
Traveling around the country with it has helped me adapt to what the audience wants. In Texas, they’re curious and want to know what you got going on. In LA, they want to be hustled a little. In New Orleans, the streets speak to an energy found at carnivals with jazz musicians tooting along while the poets pitch their wares like barkers.
The whole thing is a practice of stepping outside of oneself. It can be emotionally exhausting. It can also be totally enlivening. I still sometimes find an inner voice telling me how crappy a poet I am and how this person smiling, standing in front of me awaiting patiently for their poem is just playing along out of some form of pity. But this self-defeatist inner monologue makes great practice to get me back out into the world sharing my heart, serving my purpose. If I am my greatest critic and I can overcome even him, then what’s the worst that the street could throw at me?
As you travel abroad and spread love through poetry, what can you tell us about your experience with humanity currently?
Humanity is where it’s always been. We’re all seeking answers. Believing in a higher power or some sort of connection between all of us and all of our surroundings. Looking for love. Enjoying the moments we share with loved ones. Though we come from different backgrounds and experiences, there is not much that really divides us.
Even the irony of the internet era can’t help but have their heart tickled by the sincerity of a poem.
We all hold a lot of pain underneath the surface. There’s also a lot of joy and celebration. Overall, I think what we all seek is someone to relate it to or the right words to transmute the emotion.
Do you think poetry can help change the world? Why? How?
I think poets have quite the burden on their shoulders. They are the voice of a generation. At their best, they express all the fantastical peace and chaotic discord of any moment experienced in time.
Even the apolitical poets offer somewhere for the mind to wander. A moment of freedom. I think poetry certainly can change the world. I say let’s elect more poets to public office. Less actors and less reality TV stars. Let’s let the connoisseurs of language stir us up into a frenzy until our hearts explode in rapture. I think poetry offers a safe space for an exchange of consciousness. If nothing else it puts into words what is hard to otherwise express. Through its direction we are led straight to the heart. Our world certainly needs more people thinking with their hearts. Less with their minds. There is a great vulnerability there, but there is also great medicine. A poem is where the heart is. Let’s all read poetry and fall in love for the first time.